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Saturday, July 26, 2003

In our fight for independence we rightly said, “Good governance is no substitute for self-governance”. But when our local governments (very often our bureaucrats and ‘superior’ politicians only refer to them as local ‘bodies’ not even giving them a status of a government) seek more autonomy, the immediate response from one and all is that local representatives are inexperienced and incompetent, corruption will skyrocket, and citizens are illiterate and ill-informed. I am immediately reminded of Lord Macaulay’s admonition: “Many politicians lay it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom – the maxim is worthy of the fool in the story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim.”

If the governments at the union and state level are governing well and if corruption is negligent, may be they are justified in expressing such views even if they happen to be incorrect. But with governance at their level in such shambles and corruption so rampant, they have no business to make such accusations and withhold power on such grounds.

The state governments are behaving like some Indian parents with feudal mindset who think their children will listen best if they do not give them any freedom, withhold all power and control the purse strings. This centralization of power and control of funds may make the parents secure in the knowledge that their children will never rebel. Although this does have its benefits the ultimate consequence can be disastrous in terms of the child’s future and parents well-being.

As enlightened and educated parents we all know that unless we give our children opportunities to learn, provide an environment to grow and give them freedom to make choices, they can never grow up to be independent, capable and responsible people.

This centralization of power and control of funds may make the states secure in the knowledge that the local governments can never become powerful. But the fact that such centralized control prevents the states from rising to the heights they are capable of escapes these autocratic, self-important bosses. Such centralized misgovernance eventually invites rebellion of the local representatives and disaffection among the citizens in some form or the other.

All state governments believe that the Union should not be an all-powerful bully dictating to them beyond what the constitution mandates. And they demand more financial devolution. But it is ironic that the same state government fails to recognize that the local governments elected by the same people should be given the funds, functions and functionaries to carry out their responsibilities. Once such authority is transferred, the people know how to hold local governments to account.

Experience the world over has been that those countries whose local governments are free and empowered have progressed more rapidly than where the government has been centralized. Even communist China achieved rapid growth because of local autonomy and decentralization. In our country where local governments haven’t even reached the stage of autonomy – many developed countries the world over are moving towards the principle of subsidiarity. This principle of subsidiarity is a complete reversal of our top down model. Here the citizen is the focal point and that which she cannot do herself will be taken on by the immediate family and anything beyond the scope of the family will be taken care of the community. Only those tasks which are beyond the community will be delegated to the local government. And then, what the local government cannot do should go to the state level, and what the state cannot, should be handled by the Union. There is no ‘centre’ apart from the citizen and her family in a sane democracy. Nor can we accept hierarchies of government. We only have smaller or bigger governments, and nearer or farther governments. And the citizen is the sovereign. When will our puffed up bureaucrats and self-important politicians realize this simple truth about liberty and democracy?

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